WU-SLam gears up for 3rd annual Grand Slam

The competitors of Wu-SLam’s Grand Slam rehearse their poems during one of their nightly practices, which run from ten at night, to two in the morning. Lane S. Goodman | Student Life

The competitors of Wu-SLam’s Grand Slam rehearse their poems during one of their nightly practices, which run from ten at night, to two in the morning.

A week ago, George Watsky released a YouTube video entitled “Pale kid raps fast.” On Thursday afternoon, he found himself performing for a national audience on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” And on Friday night, Watsky will perform at Washington University at WU-SLam’s third annual Grand Slam.

In the past week, Watsky’s video has garnered 4.5 million views on YouTube, turning an already well-respected figure in the slam poetry community into an overnight star.

WU-SLam had booked Watsky before his video went viral, but its members say that Watsky’s newfound popularity has only added to a sense of exhilaration leading up to this year’s Grand Slam.

“It’s really incredible,” senior and co-founder Aaron Samuels said. “He was already one of the most accomplished people in the world in terms of spoken word poetry … [the video] is just getting him exposure in a completely new way.”

For the past two weeks, members of WU-SLam have rehearsed slam poetry for upwards of four hours a night in the Gregg Seminar Room, offering critiques on details as miniscule as diction and hand movement.

Junior Lauren Banka, WU-SLam’s president, hopes that this hard work will pay off Friday, when 10 of the WU-SLam poets will compete against each other in Edison Theatre. Banka credits the success of each individual member with WU-SLam’s ability to work together as a group.

“We are spending four to seven hours [a night] just sitting in that seminar room, in order to help each other,” Banka said. “I am trying to beat all of those people in that room, but I am spending time helping them make their poems better. And that attitude that we all have—prioritizing each other over winning—that is what makes this phenomenal.”

The poets competing Friday are the top performers at this year’s four WU-Slam competitions, as well as wild cards chosen from the WU-SLam executive board.

There are three rounds to the competition. For the first two rounds, all 10 poets compete in three-minute performances.

Five judges are chosen from the audience to score the poets on a scale of one to 10. The highest and lowest scores of the five judges are dropped, and the four highest-scoring poets compete in the third round.

These four poets will form WU-SLam’s national team, which will go on to compete in the College Union’s Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI).

Watsky, a poet and musician from San Francisco, will open the competition with a short set and will serve as its host. A 2009 graduate of Emerson College, Watsky was the 2006 Youth Speaks Grand Slam Poetry Champion and in 2009 was one of three poets chosen to perform live at the NAACP Image Awards in honor of Russell Simmons’ lifetime achievement award.

In addition to “flexing,” or demonstrating his ability to quickly spout a string of words, Watsky frequently innovates in his performances, using props and accompaniment to spout a broader message.

“George has more technical rap ability than anyone else I know,” Samuels said of Watsky. “He’s never afraid to push the envelope.”

According to Samuels, Watsky has also served as a leader in the spoken word community, mentoring a youth poetry troupe in Boston.

Watsky said the he intended the video, which features 90 seconds of him riffing, to showcase his technical skills as a rapper and draw attention to more of his work.

“The video isn’t really spoken word poetry, it’s really just straight rap, which is part of what I do. But it accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish—it got a lot of eyes on my work,” Watsky said. “The stuff that’s more important to me is the stuff that has a message to it. I value content as much as I value the package that it comes in.”

Slam poetry is a rebellion against traditional understandings of literary value, incorporating elements from hip-hop, stand-up comedy and classical poetry. According to Banka, each member of WU-SLam has a distinct style.

“I think that’s a real strength; none of us are stereotypical poets, absolutely none of us,” Banka said. “It is amazing how much diverse knowledge and experience there is in the group. So many people are so good at this and have such good advice to give.“

Since WU-SLam’s inception in 2008, it has had a notable impact on the University

WU-SLam’s first Grand SLam, in 2009, filled not only the Tisch Commons, but also the DUC fun room, where it was streamed live.

WU-SLam’s teams have also obtained distinction at the national level.

In its first year at CUPSI, WU-SLam received more awards than any other competing team, including “Most Innovative” and “Best Group Piece.” Last year, WU-SLam was ranked the fifth best team in the nation. The group was also awarded “Best Performance Team,” and Samuels received “Best Poem.”

Beyond helping its own members, WU-SLam tries to contribute to the University community as a whole. The group holds weekly open writing workshops called Inklings and will have held roughly 80 events by the end of this academic year.

This year’s Grand Slam, hosted for the first time in Edison, will be streamed live on kuumba.tv, a student-run website aimed at showcasing the creative talents of the student body.

After performing his technically impressive rap on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Watsky looked forward to a night of slam poetry at the University.

“I’m excited to perform at Wash. U. tomorrow because that’s my base family, the spoken word community, the stuff the comes past how it’s delivered, [that] comes from the heart,” Watsky said.

Samuels stressed the importance of the positive, constructive message that WU-SLam is seeking to provide on campus, especially in light of student dissent surrounding Bristol Palin.

“We’re not bringing people from outside the community as a way to cause protest or riot or anger,” Samuels said. “We want to bring this campus together in a way that does something constructive. That’s really what WU-SLam stands for.”

With additional reporting by Kate Gaertner.